“Star Wars at Christmas?” “Put it back in May where it belongs.”

Some Star Wars fans had “a bad feeling about this” when The Force Awakens was scheduled for December 18, 2015. But complaints were forgotten when the movie opened to rave reviews.

Me, I’ve associated Star Wars with Christmas since I opened my first Star Wars toys on Christmas morning in 1977, while the original was still in theaters. Dozens of those original action figures—capes, lightsabers, blasters, and all—keep vigil on my bookshelves still today, almost 40 years later. They kindle creativity in me. Star Wars only hinted at a cosmos of storytelling, and during those holiday vacations from homework, I dreamed up my own stories about that galaxy far, far away.

Apparently so did many others who grew up to be filmmakers. And now, with Disney’s promise that Star Wars movies will be an annual event, we can assume that droids and stormtroopers will become as common as reindeer and snowmen in December.

I haven’t heard protests about the Christmastime release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (By the time you read this, I’ll have seen Gareth Edwards’ movie. And, let’s face it, so will many of you.) But I have heard other concerns: Will this episode—the first that doesn’t focus on Skywalkers—feel like the real thing? Or will it just feel like a money grab? Does Edwards understand what makes Star Wars unique and beloved?

Wait a minute: What does make Star Wars unique and beloved?

I think I know. And it has everything to do with Han Solo.

Solo has been, from the beginning, my favorite character. (My 1977 Solo toy plays a central role in my action-figure review of The Force Awakenswhich became, overnight, the most popular thing I’ve ever posted online.) Solo represents all of Star Wars’ contradictory tensions in one character. He starts out as a cocky gunslinger, independent, roguishly “secular.” “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side,” he boasts. But we rejoice when he “gets religion.” In time, he commits to a “family” of rebels, risks his life to serve the oppressed, and says “May the Force be with you.” In their hearts, all moviegoers sense that this is an ideal narrative—something better than “Vigilante Hero Stops Evil with Smart Shooting.”

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Still, I have mixed feelings as I rotate those action figures around my home-office bookshelves. They represent one contradiction that always threatens to spoil Star Wars. Almost every character comes with a death-dealing accessory. I cringe when I see Star Wars video games, saddened to see players engage the story by shooting—by the use of coercive violence rather than the exercise of mindful restraint.

That’s because I believe that Star Wars storytellers’ emphasis on a spiritual transformation is, far more than any special effects revolution, the real secret to the saga’s enduring popularity. Obi-Wan, Luke, and eventually Han all have defining moments of selfless surrender. Yes, they carry weapons. But they are distinguished by how they put them down and open their hands in risky offers of grace.

The villains highlight righteousness by contrast. The Emperor exploits the fears of vulnerable populations, making false promises that win the hearts of the people and get him elected. Then, plotting with powerful criminals, he manipulates and betrays his supporters. He values them only until they have given him enough power to abolish democracy.

Darth Vader? He began as one of the faithful: a disciple of Jedi knights. But then a politician from outside the fold began flattering him, seducing him with the promise of privilege. An immature Jedi, young Anakin became the most dreaded warlord in the galaxy by hardening his heart to protestors and rationalizing tyranny.

All of this seems as timely as ever. Breaking news headlines keep reminding me of Yoda’s warnings: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (And I’m not the first to sense timely relevance in these stories. Check out Dick Staub’s book of Star Wars devotional reflections: Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters. And remember—echoes of truth in pagan mythology were what opened C. S. Lewis’s heart to the gospel.)

As Yoda might say, “Observant you must be, Padawan learners.” See if you can discern whether or not the Force is strong with Rogue One. Will the seven-year-olds who see it emerge with imaginary blasters in hand, eager to shoot down bad guys? Or will they value mercy, resist the Dark Side, and open themselves to a benevolent force that moves in mysterious ways?

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If the latter occurs… celebrate Christmastime Star Wars movies we should. Meaningful for all ages they might be.

[I recommend the Star Wars movies to all ages except children younger than six… probably because I was seven when I saw the first one. And although it was often scary and violent, it made me want to resist the Dark Side of the Force.]

Discussion questions for Star Wars marathon parties—or post-viewing Rogue One parties:

  1. What are the defining characteristics of Jedi knights? Are they an entirely admirable organization of “guardians”? What do they defend? How do they defend it?
  2. What causes the fall of the Jedi order? How is their unity disrupted and their influence erased?
  3. What kind of a politician is Palpatine? How does he gain so much influence in a democracy, considering his malevolent intentions?
  4. What makes Anakin vulnerable to Palpatine’s lies? What are the key moments of decision and failure in Anakin’s fall?
  5. Compare and contrast the values, philosophies, and teachings of Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Yoda. How are they different? How are they the same? Is any one of them all-knowing?
  6. In what ways is the Force like the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit? In what ways is it different? Do the Star Wars movies make contradictory statements about the nature of the Force? Is it an impersonal force, or is it sentient? Where does it come from? Does it have a “will”?
  7. Even the Jedi use weapons to preserve what they value. How is this different from Christ’s relationship with violence?
  8. The Star Wars movies have a preoccupation with family connections and relationships. Why do you suppose audiences respond so strongly to those revelations? (Why are so many theories about the developing stories obsessed with possible family connections?)
  9. What character arc in the Star Wars saga do you find most compelling, and why?
  10. If you’ve just seen Rogue One, what do you think? Is it “strong in the Force”? That is, does it have a strong elements that reinforce the themes of the first two trilogies?